First-time mom at 50: Menopause and motherhood all at once

Exhausted, but happy: Sarah Frahm became a mom to baby Max when she was 49 and says she has no regrets.

At an age where most of her friends were sending their kids off to college or becoming grandparents, Sarah Frahm, 49, and husband Carlos Mora, 50, were just bringing a newborn baby home from the hospital.

“It’s kind of wacky and crazy, going through peri-menopause with a baby,” observes Frahm with a laugh.  “You’re so hot in the middle of the night you’re opening all the windows -- then you’re absolutely freezing cold.  So when the baby cries in the next room, you’re awake anyway.”

She shrugs.  “You think, I might as well go through babyhood and peri-menopause all at once.  You know?”

Frahm and Mora met in their late thirties.  After spending years establishing themselves in their careers (Mora is a doctor and Frahm an art therapist) they decided to start a family. But conceiving naturally was difficult, and, after years of unsuccessful in-vitro fertilization treatments they decided to adopt. In 2010, they welcomed a little son, Max, into their family.

“Carlos and I are both late bloomers,” Frahm, now 51, admits. "We do things slowly.  It’s who we are as people – but it also speaks to our age.”

Taking their time to parenthood, they learned, had its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, Frahm is thankful for the emotional maturity she brought to parenthood, something she says she lacked at a younger age.

“Looking back to where I was [in my twenties], there’s no way I was ready for a relationship, or even the thought of raising a child.  I had so much personal growth that I had to go through.”

David Nish, director of adoptions at the Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in New York City, concurs that for some people, embarking on parenthood later in life is the right choice.

“Sometimes young parents have children before they’re ready,” he notes. “The advantage of older parenting is that you have life experience.  You’re ready to focus on someone different from yourself.”

Still, Nish acknowledges that there are distinct disadvantages to becoming a parent in one’s forties or fifties.

“Sometimes you’re really tired,” admits Nish, 52, himself a father of very young children.  “It’s exhausting being a parent.”

Frahm could not agree more. 

“Those first three months, before Max established a sleep routine, it was mind-bogglingly hard,” she recalls.  “For the first time I understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture. I’m not kidding. It frightened me.  The level of exhaustion . . . it’s just, there was nothing left.”

Even more sobering was the realization that she and Mora will be nearly in their seventies by the time their son graduates from high school. 

“In the process of adopting Max, I was frightened about that,” she says. “Now that I’m a mom, I realize that it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Any parent can be hit by a Mack truck any day. You have to live your life as it comes.”

For her, that means staying physically active. She is delighted to find that parenting, despite its many demands, has infused her with a new sense of energy.

“People think midlife parents are set in their ways and curmudgeonly, but the opposite is true! I’ve become so much more open to novelty. Playing with Max is my favorite thing ever. I love the wrestling with him, playing ball with him. I cannot WAIT to teach him to ride a bike!

“It’s funny because yes, I’m 51, but I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel at 51. I feel really young.” She shakes her head. “Sometimes I’m surprised at how old I actually look.  A little girl who was 5 years old asked me if Max was my grandchild! That really floored me.”

The change in her own identity, says Frahm, has been one of the hardest parts about becoming a first-time mom at her age.  Though most women experience an identity shift when they become new mothers, Frahm feels it is especially dramatic for an older mom who spent decades defining herself by her career.

“It was a rough transition because I was so established in my career, in my life and patterns, and then when the baby arrived, my identity just shifted completely,” she says. “Being a mid-life parent, you define yourself by your career for so many more years than someone who has a baby their 30s or 20s.”

She took six months off work when Max was a baby, and found the transition back rocky at first. She adds, “There was a space of about a year where I just didn’t know who I was.  But when I slowed down and took each moment as it came, the transition started happening in a really lovely fashion.”

Over the past decade, statistics show that the number of first-time parents in their forties and fifties is skyrocketing. In a 2007 survey of adoptive parents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 13 percent of adoptive parents were 50 years older than their children.

The number of older adoptive parents might be even higher, if not for age restrictions on some international adoptions. Some domestic adoption agencies also set an age limit for prospective parents.

"In the adoption world, internationally, adoption is not really possible for people who are over fifty...  And I think that generally speaking, birth mothers are often choosing someone younger ," says Nish, whose agency does not put limits on adoptive parents' ages. He says the "organic connection" between the birth parents and the adoptive parents is the primary deciding factor at his agency.  "We tend to stay away from generalizations."   

New York magazine reported an increase in older parents in 2011, citing a 375 percent increase of babies born or adopted to women age 50 or older. The author noted that the decision to become a parent at 50 or beyond can be controversial, often drawing criticism from people who consider it “unnatural” or “selfish.” In some online forums, older mothers are mocked as "granny moms."

Others defend these seasoned new parents. “Forty is the new twenty” declared Psychology Today online in 2011, noting that older parents bring different strengths to the child-rearing process, such as the potential for greater financial security and a calmer, less hectic lifestyle. 

“Having a child at this stage of the game is amazing to us,” marvels Frahm. “Our lives have gone off in this amazingly beautiful direction. It just keeps on unfolding. Even though it’s incredibly difficult to be a parent of a young child, I think because of my age I appreciate it so much.”